by Matt Harris | Basketball is very rarely not fun to watch.
Sure, watching your team get spanked by 20 points is not a great time, but it’s still better than most episodes of Antiques Roadshow. Quality basketball, however, is some of the best entertainment you can put on a roll of film.
Utah’s prep hoops scene has grown rapidly in the last 15 years, perhaps enjoying it’s sunniest day when the 2013 Lone Peak Knights were declared the national champs by multiple polls.
However, it’s not Lone Peak these days that can lay claim to the role of top dog for basketball in the Beehive State. That role is currently filled by a tiny private school of 300 students tucked into the valley of Sanpete County.
Wasatch Academy currently sits at a national, (yes, national) rank of No. 11 by MaxPreps as of last Monday, and they spent this weekend blowing out opponents from across the nation in a tournament in Fort Wayne, Indiana. What about the aforementioned Lone Peak Knights? The Tigers beat them by 19 points earlier this season. It was their third straight win over them. Wasatch’s entire starting lineup last year committed to play for Division 1 college programs.
All that makes it ever so much more confusing, upsetting even, that the Tigers are barely talked about within the borders of their home state. Stories of their high-profile recruiting signings and national success are rarely found. Athletic Director Travis Madsen said he has reached out to different media outlets a number of times to ask that they remedy the issue for the sake of all of the Wasatch Academy proud sports programs, but to no avail.
There are three predominant reasons why this program should be on the minds of Utahns far more than it is:
1. National Spotlight
It’s a tremendous understatement just to say that Wasatch Academy is the best boys basketball team in Utah, because it’s not even close in that regard. The Tigers haven’t lost to a Utah team of any classification since 2015, when now-NBA player Frank Jackson led the Knights over the Tigers by a slim margin.
The Tigers do not compete for a state championship and most of their players are not from Utah, sometimes not even from the U.S., probably the two largest factors in their lack of instate coverage. Wasatch Academy’s sights for the last eight years have been set on the ridiculously exclusive GEICO Nationals tournament that takes place in New York each spring. They’ve done a darn good job at it too, making the tournament in three straight years and four times in five years. Although they are still looking for their first tournament win, their No. 2 ranking in last spring’s bracket prior to COVID-19 cancellation indicates their first was on the horizon.
For reasons I generally am not sure of, people in Utah really love getting national attention. Wasatch Academy provides that, yet the accomplishments of local schools constantly drown it out. The Tigers are getting better every year, to the point that three and four-star players, such as current senior Nolan Hickman, are forgoing their final years in their home states to play for Coach Paul Peterson’s squad.
It could be argued that 2020 was going to be a rebuilding year for Wasatch Academy after the entire starting lineup was replaced due to graduation, but the Tigers are still looking every bit as good as last year. It won’t be long before the Tigers claim a national title and bring it home to Utah, and if that isn’t something that local media decides to cover, it would be a disappointment of magnanimous proportions.
2. NBA Talent
In a conversation with former Tigers’ head coach David Evans last year, Evans alluded to the fact that there were more than just college recruiters showing up to games in Mount Pleasant lately. The odd NBA scout has been known to take up a bleacher spot. Evans predicted it wouldn’t be long before the Tigers have their first NBA-bound alumnus.
Peterson was less sure-footed about the question this year. “Not only do you have to be skilled, but you have to be lucky,” he said. Peterson did, however, go on to agree that it shouldn’t be a long time before there’s a Tiger playing with a Jerry West logo on their jersey.
That’s what might be expected from a program that not only sent a four-star center to Michigan State this year in the form of Mady Sissoko, but also has a four-star prospect in Hickman who is signed to play college ball at Kentucky, a known NBA factory. They also have a four-star junior right behind him in Rickie Isaacs, who already has offers from Arkansas and Texas Tech, according to ESPN.
Once again citing that Utahns really like being nationally represented, the current list of active NBA players that played high school basketball in Utah is as follows:
Frank Jackson. That’s the list.
Wasatch Academy can change that, and every basketball fan in Utah would appreciate seeing more credence given to the rising culture of elite basketball in the state. It may be even more so if it involves an extended stay inside the state’s borders, which brings us to…
3. Recruiting Interest
I saved the best for last. Despite many of the most coveted recruits from Wasatch Academy playing all over the country as expected of a geographically diverse roster, Utah’s proud local college teams have recently been able to scoop up a number of players to benefit their programs. No other program could be more grateful for the Tigers right now than the BYU Cougars.
Going back to 2015, after Koby McEwen jumped from the Tigers to be a Utah State Aggie, BYU started to set their sights on the Tigers while still under the direction of coach Dave Rose. This led to the 2018 commitment by Bernardo Da Silva. Although Da Silva would not end up playing for the Cougars after Rose’s retirement, BYU head coach Mark Pope hit Wasatch Academy hard on the recruiting trail. He picked up senior Richie Saunders in 2019, who will join the program in 2022 after his LDS mission. Then, the formerly-committed Utah Ute Caleb Lohner was granted a release from his National Letter of Intent to play for BYU in one of last offseason’s biggest stories. The Cougars have also signed current senior Fousseyni Traore to the team for 2021. It is their third commitment in two years.
Beyond that, the Tigers have sent McEwen to Utah State and Cody John to Weber State in 2015. Despite that kind of recruiting power, most local fans have more closely watched the recruiting coverage of players like Fremont’s Dallin Hall or Ridgeline’s Jaxon Brenchley than anyone wearing a Tiger jersey.
You would think that the basketball factory pumping out college-ready players in Utah’s backyard would be of more interest to BYU, Utah, and USU fans alike.
When one of these local players tweets about much of anything, it’s commonplace to see local media outlets retweet their film highlights and fans fill the comments with pleas to join their favorite program. Wasatch Academy’s players should be getting that kind of attention from Utah’s sports junkies.
The Tigers are currently 11-0 after their last victory, a 100-79 win over Vision Prep, Ind. at the Summit Challenge in Fort Wayne, Ind. Their next road trip will begin January 7, and it’s a big one. They are taking on multiple Top 25 teams in the National Hoopfest in Washington, D.C. TV coverage will be on ESPN and ESPNU.
Featured image via KSL Sports.